Soccer leagues throughout most of the world practice the concept of promotion and relegation. At the end of each season the teams that finish at the top of a given division are promoted to the next higher division, while those that finish at the bottom are relegated to make room for the newcomers. Anticipating more revenue, recently promoted teams typically bring in new talent in order to compete with higher level competition. The English club Leicester City is a poster child for this system, rising from the third division of English football, where they toiled with the likes of Scunthorpe United, Milton Keynes Dons, and Oldham Athletic (allegedly sponsored by the Columbus Craft Beer Alliance), to champions of the Premier League in just seven years. As everyone knows American sports leagues, including MLS, don’t follow this model. I see no other rational explanation for the continued inclusion of the Cleveland Browns in the NFL.
Craft brewing doesn’t formally have divisions, but the big boys like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium operate in a completely different world from small neighborhood breweries like Staas and Lineage. Breweries can move up the food chain, but it takes significant investment capital to do so. Maybe not Russian oligarch kind of cash, but a lot more than the average Siebel Institute alumnus has stashed away. This is the story of how one Central Ohio brewery, North High Brewing, transformed itself from a small neighborhood brewery to a major player on the Ohio craft beer scene.
Although North High Brewing’s existence can be traced back to 2011 they first opened their doors to the public in the dying days of December 2012. At that time you could still count the number of Central Ohio breweries on your fingers. Four String was already out of the gate but nearby Seventh Son had not yet started serving up their own beer. Co-founders Gavin Meyers and Tim Ward, who met in the OSU MBA program, envisioned a business built around a brew-on-premises model. It’s a niche that not many breweries cater to, within Ohio only the Brew Kettle in Strongsville and Eudora Brewing near Dayton offer similar services. To diversify their revenue stream Meyers and Ward included a full retail taproom bar, a homebrew ingredient and supply store, and small scale distribution of their beer to outside accounts. The nascent operation went by the moniker BRU, but in a scenario all too familiar for Columbus-area breweries that name had to be abandoned when they discovered it matched an existing business. (Land Grant and Seventh Son also had to drop their initial choice of names to avoid legal hassles down the road.) In this case the conflict was with an Indianapolis craft beer/gourmet burger joint.
I can clearly recall my visits to the bar and taproom in late 2013, back when this blog was just getting off the ground. The décor made the biggest impression on me. The centerpiece is a wooden money order window from the old Grandview Mercantile that dates to the 1800’s, while the most conspicuous design feature is probably the wall of post office boxes from post-Katrina New Orleans that hold the mugs of regulars. A 100+ year old train rail serves as the footrest for patrons who belly up to the bar, and salvaged materials from renovated OSU buildings are incorporated in multiple places. Then there is the large window behind the bar that looks into the room where people are often trying their hand at brewing beer. Meyers and Ward clearly invested a ton of sweat equity transforming this one time Ford dealership into such a unique, classy venue.
The North High beers in those days had a few defining characteristics. Right off the bat they were serving a multitude of styles—an ESB, a hefeweizen, a milk stout, a double IPA, a saison, a doppelbock, and many more. Then head brewer Charlie Davis had worked up 30+ recipes that rotated on and off the taps at North High. Perhaps the diversity reflected the homebrew ethos that was at the core of North High model. Another aspect that differentiated North High from many of the craft breweries springing up around Columbus was a reluctance to name their beers. Most beers were identified solely by their style name. Browse through a list of accepted beer styles and pick one, put North High in front of the style name, and chances are decent you’ve just named one of the beers on tap in the first two years of operation.
Quality wise I don’t recall a lot of standouts from those days. I was fond of the very drinkable Wildcard! English pale when served on nitro, and the Milk Stout has always been pretty delicious, but as the Columbus craft beer scene exploded I didn’t find myself drawn to the beers of North High. It was a classy, cool place to hang out that served solid, locally made beer, but in this writer’s opinion the taproom ambiance was more unique than the beer itself.
Go Big or Go Home
The North High taproom is equipped with a 2-barrel brewhouse, which means that each batch only yields enough beer to fill four kegs. Adequate for supplying the taproom, but you’re not going to service many outside accounts on that kind of system. Yet North High had fortuitously opened on the leading edge of a Columbus craft beer tsunami. They were well positioned as the thirst for locally brewed beer was ramping up exponentially. With their MBA acumen kicking in, Ward and Meyers decided to go all in and open a new 20-barrel production facility, increasing their production capacity tenfold in one fell swoop. There was no room for that kind of stainless steel in the High Street location so the new production facility was located about a mile to the east, near the corner of 5th and Cleveland Avenues. An intersection once known to Columbus residents as the chicken corner because it was home to a cluster of no less than five fast food chicken restaurants Sadly (unless you are a chicken, a vegetarian, or a health conscious diner) only Church’s remains.
Having doubled down on the business it was time to get serious about the production side of brewing. As the new facility was being assembled Meyers and Ward made the fateful decision to bring in a new partner and brewmaster, Jason McKibben, who brought with him some serious brewing chops. After completing his BS in Food Science at the University of Illinois, McKibben headed west for a master’s degree at UC Davis, one of the premier institutions in the country for the study of brewing and winemaking. After graduating he worked as a brewer with Budweiser for a dozen years, including a stint at the Columbus facility and another managing the research pilot brewery in St. Louis. In 2012 he jumped from the world of macro lagers (the evil empire to many) to one of craft beer’s oldest and most revered breweries, Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, where he held the position of production director.
When we were touring the North High production facility Jason told me some insightful stories about working at Budweiser. (I also learned that Gavin knows the words to the entire Les Miserables soundtrack, which while irrelevant for this story is food for thought to anyone who might be contemplating a musical adaptation of the 1983 Canadian comedy Strange Brew). AB-InBev operates no less than twelve massive production facilities across the US, and on a regular basis each brewery sends in samples of their version of Bud for a blind taste test. This is not an environment where it’s a good thing to hear the words, “happy accident we’ve made a sour.” If your version of Bud stands out as being different from the norm you have to wear the pretzel necklace of shame and write a 1000 word essay on the evils of esters. OK I might have made that last part up, but according to McKibben standing out from the crowd at one of those tastings is not a good thing. If you doubt McKibben’s palate, Meyers told me that he once conducted a blind taste test with 7 different macro lagers (Bud, Bud Light, Bud Select, Miller Light, Michelob, Michelob Ultra, and Coors Light) and Jason correctly identified them all! Don’t try that at home.
I asked Jason what made him leave his job at Anchor for the position at North High. I mean in less than three years he went from a steady, good paying job working for the man at AB-InBev, to a high level position with a craft brewery that distributes to all 50 states, to an uncertain future as a co-owner and brewmaster at a place trying to figure out how to run a production brewery. If he was looking to add some spice to his life wouldn’t skydiving or dining on Japanese fugu have sufficed? He told me that cost of living was an important factor. After all you can’t exactly live large in the Bay Area on a brewer’s salary. But why North High I asked? That’s when I learned about his previous ties with Meyers.
In 1995 when McKibben was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois he made the journey from Urbana-Champaign to Columbus for an Illinois-Ohio State football game. As fate would have it McKibben’s roommate and Meyers were old high school classmates, and they ended up crashing on Gavin’s floor. Later when McKibben’s career with Budweiser brought him to Columbus the two reconnected and became good friends. Now it all starts to make sense. After all clinical trials have shown a causal link between rooting for the Fighting Illini and a cornucopia of irrational behaviors that include unrealistic expectations and an unfashionable affinity for orange-hued attire.
Brewing quality beer on a large scale is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. You also have to package and distribute the beer. North High’s initial strategy for this side of the operation was to partner with Buckeye Canning for packaging, and to self-distribute their beer throughout Columbus. That approach allowed them to grow to approximately 120 outside accounts (see Columbus Business First article from Feb 2015). To go to the next level they made two key moves. In February 2015 they signed a distribution deal with Premium Beverage that would allow North High beers to be distributed throughout Ohio. Then in late 2015 they added an in-house canning line. Not just any canning line either, the Palmer 12-head canning line can pump out an impressive 100 cans per minute. Within the Buckeye state it’s speed is surpassed only by the canning system at Rhinegeist.
According to self-reported statistics collected by Columbus Business First North High Brewing was producing 3500 barrels of beer per year in April of 2015 (17 months ago). According to the survey that’s about one-third of what Columbus Brewing Company was producing, but larger than Land Grant, Seventh Son and Actual. Since that time production has continued to increase and they are currently on pace to approach 5000 barrels production in 2016.
Validation, Rebranding, and My Birthday
My first realization that North High had upped their game came this past March while on a downtown brewery crawl organized to celebrate my 50th birthday. We stumbled into the taproom around 5 pm on a Saturday to find a crowd full of revelers. Having already visited Wolf’s Ridge, Elevator, Hoof Hearted, and Seventh Son I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Having abandoned my original plan of sticking to session beers I ordered a pint of their David Bowie tribute beer, a double IPA called Stardust to Stardust that features three space themed hops—Galaxy, Comet and Apollo. It’s hard for a beer to make an impression when you’re on the fifth stop of a birthday bender, but the aroma and flavor were able to cut through the ethanol induced haze that had settled over me and made a lasting impression. If I’m honest I can’t recall exactly what it tasted like, but I remember waking up the next morning and thinking where’s the aspirin I’ve got to start paying more attention to North High.
If the hazy recollections of an inebriated beer blogger aren’t evidence enough for you, their showing at the World Beer Cup in May put the rest of Ohio on notice. North High Pale Ale was awarded a silver medal in the American-style Pale Ale category. The accomplishment is particularly impressive when you consider that with a total of 167 entries the APA style category is one of the most competitive at the WBC. They were one of only two Central Ohio breweries to win a medal at the competition (the other a gold for Barrel Aged Woodthrush by Little Fish Brewing). This was not a special competition version of their pale ale either, they just pulled a couple of cans off a pallet and sent them in for judging. (As an aside the North High team told me that nearly two months elapsed between submitting their entry to the WBC and the actual judging. So the next time you’re tempted to drain pour a hop-forward beer that’s a couple of months old, maybe you should think again.)
The most recent step in the North High makeover was a rebranding of their cans. The original design features a wood grain pattern that is meant to evoke the restored woodwork of the taproom, but the color scheme and font selection left something to be desired. It was hard to read the font from a distance, and to my eye the design managed to look dated even though it was new. The new design retains the woodgrain feature and the characteristic logo, but everything about it just seems to pop. When it comes to competing for consumers on crowded store shelves the importance of branding and design should not be underestimated. Just because Hoppin’ Frog can be successful using packaging adorned with 1990’s era clip art, doesn’t mean everyone can do it.
The Beers of North High – circa 2016
Following a tried and true model North High packages and distributes four core beers throughout the year, augmented by a rotating list of seasonal offerings. True to their roots the core beers eschew clever names and let the beer style speak for itself, while the seasonals not only get names, most of them thumb their nose at the Reinheitsgebot. Let’s take a peek at what’s inside those fancy new cans.
Pale Ale – The award winning pale ale is a poster child for North High’s reinvention. In the pre-Jason McKibben era this beer was not dry hopped, making for a somewhat underwhelming aroma profile. Let’s just say things have changed. Nowadays the deliciously fruity hop aroma registers on your olfactory system before you’ve finished pouring the beer into a glass. Not just any hops either, but a magical mix of modern day darlings Nelson Sauvin and Mosaic.
IPA – Using the same yeast, and sporting a similar blend of North American and English malts as the Pale Ale, the IPA differentiates itself with an entirely different lineup of hops. The requisite hoppiness comes largely from American “C” hops with an Australian hop thrown in to mix things up. The use of no less than four varieties in the dry hop packs in the aroma-forward character people have come to expect from an IPA.
Hefeweizen – A faithful take on the Bavarian classic featuring an appropriate blend of clove and banana. Not many breweries feature a hefeweizen in their core lineup, which might help to explain why this is North High’s best seller on draft.
Milk Stout – If I had to pick a favorite North High beer it would probably be this one. Pure chocolate malty goodness complimented by just the right amount of sweetness from the lactose sugar, delivered in an almost sessionable 5.3% abv package. To my palate it’s strongly reminiscent of a chocolate milkshake in beer form, without excessive cloying sweetness. The draft-only version that’s infused with Thunderkiss Coffee is to die for.
Seasonals include Jalalima Ale, a blonde ale infused with jalapeno peppers and limes. Grapefruit Walleye, an absolutely crushable summer seasonal that is a citra-hopped session IPA blended with grapefruit juice. It evolved from the single-hop Citra Smash that was often on tap in the early days. The Walleye is so good I included it in my Central/SE Ohio Essential Six Pack, along with heavyweights like Bodhi and Dark Apparition. The current seasonal is an Oktoberfest called Norden Hoch (German for North High). In my recent märzen/festbier blind taste test it finished in a virtual tie for first among a field of twelve strong contenders, besting German imports and decorated Ohio beers like Great Lakes Oktoberfest. Next up is a beer called Tree Tapper Maple Brown that will feature Ohio maple syrup and a complex blend of specialty malts. Although they wouldn’t say anything definitive the brewing team is trying to stockpile enough Galaxy hops for Stardust to Stardust to make an appearance in the seasonal rotation in early 2017. Keep your fingers crossed.
The Brew on Premises Model Lives
Just because North High has jumped into the world of production brewing in a big way doesn’t mean they’ve pulled the plug on the brew on premises side of the business. In fact, they’ve facilitated over 3000 batches of customer brewed beer since opening. I partook in a brewing session as part of a team building exercise with my coworkers last December and I have to say the experience was a blast. You start by choosing from one of the nearly 30 recipes on hand (I chose to make a Black IPA). When it comes time to brew an experienced brewer helps your group through the brewing process. You can tweak the recipe if you like (I decided to use Citra hops in my recipe in place of Cascades), or you can go completely off script if you like.
Once you’ve settled on the recipe, you begin by seeping the specialty grains, then you add malt extract and bring the mixture to a boil using the steam lines that service the circular ring of handsome copper kettles. At appropriate times you throw in hops, just like you would if brewing at home. Also just like homebrewing there’s plenty of time for drinking beer, in this case from one of the 20+ beers on tap at the North High taproom on the other side of the window. Unlike homebrewing there’s no sanitizing ahead of time or cleaning up afterwards. Once you make the last hop addition and turn off the heat you can walk away. Then you come back in a couple of weeks and bottle your beer using a really slick bottling setup that comes with a CO2 purge system. I can’t begin to describe how much nicer it is than bottling at home.
The size of a finished batch of beer is approximately 15 gallons, the equivalent of a single keg, which translates to nearly 23 six-packs or 80 bombers of beer. The cost ranges from $190-$240 which is pretty reasonable when you consider that the average six pack of craft beer runs about $10 so the cost to buy an equivalent amount of beer is on the order of $230. The cost of the ingredients to brew a typical 5 gallon batch of beer at home would be on the order of $40+ depending on the recipe and where you buy your ingredients. If you scale that up to 15 gallons you’re looking at about something in the vicinity of $120-$150 to brew that same quantity of beer at home. (Note: Bottles, caps and labels cost extra if you don’t already have them. So start cleaning and saving your bottles now.)
Quality wise the beer is somewhere between a typical homebrew and the beer coming out of the North High production brewery. So if you want the very best drinking experience I’d stick with the pros. Hardcore homebrewers may not be comfortable sacrificing some degree of control over the process. You’re not there to pitch the yeast or take gravity readings. There’s no bathtub full of ice trying to drop the temperature of your wort. Dry hopping is not part of the regular service, but you can add it in for an extra fee (and I would recommend that for hoppy styles), and extracts are used for the base malts instead of the all-grain approach favored by purists. For those who are looking to get a taste of homebrewing without the hassle and equipment, it’s a great option. Finally, it should be said that making nearly 6 cases of beer is both a blessing and a curse. I would definitely recommend you do it as a group activity so you can split the spoils, otherwise you’re going to be drinking what you make for many moons to come.
The Central Ohio landscape is replete with breweries that have expanded from very humble beginnings. Zauber, Zaftig, Four String, and Hoof Hearted immediately come to mind, but in my opinion no other Central Ohio brewery has changed its look, its approach, and most importantly its beer, as profoundly as North High Brewing. Given their current facilities, distribution footprint, McKibben’s brewing expertise, Ward’s business acumen, and Meyer’s surprisingly silky tenor, the future looks bright for the boys of North High. If you haven’t had a North High beer in 2016 don’t take my word for it, go out and try one for yourself. You can thank me later.